From the first step of our running journey, we believe that further is probably better, and our first measure of progress is how far and how often we’re able to run.
As a rule of thumb, running three times a week, for 30 minutes at a time, is considered a good level for fitness. But what about when you’re managing that comfortably? What happens when your idea of “better running” starts to be measured not just in terms of non-stop jogs or 10,000 steps per day, and starts to be about improving your speed or running longer distances? At this point the temptation is to do more of the same. To keep adding runs to your week until you’re hopping out of bed and straight into your trainers on a daily basis without even thinking.
MORE IS BETTER
There’s no doubt about it, running more is a good idea if you want to improve your running performance – up to a point. Running three times a week, especially if you’re not fitting in any other training, will only get you so far. So your first step to getting better at any distance is to build up to running five or even six days a week. This not only gives you a better foundation in terms of your aerobic fitness, but also allows you to vary your exercise from day to day so that you’re training every aspect of your fitness, from hill strength to out-and-out speed and longer runs.
THE HARD/EASY PRINCIPLE
In reality, that variety is vital to making your higher volume training work. If you are just running the same 30-minute route, at the same “fairly hard” intensity five or six times a week, you may soon find that your fitness stops improving When that happens, it’s easy to become demoralized: your pace starts to drop, you feel sluggish, and you just don’t want to go out and run any more. There’s also a risk that you’ll become panicky and start doing every run tougher, or every run longer – and that’s a shortcut to injury. So as soon as you’re comfortably running five or six times a week, make sure you think about the function of each of your runs. Even if you’re not training for a specific event, it’s worth mixing up your runs so that your fitness doesn’t plateau. So instead of just mindlessly building up your volume, add faster sections to one or two of your runs, take one run off-road or run uphill. Just make sure you follow the hard/easy principle: after each day with a hard run (intervals, hills or a long run), have a day with an easy run.
REST IS VITAL
There’s another rule you should know if you’re building up your overall mileage: you still need rest days. Regardless of how good you’re feeling, regardless of how much you want to keep training for that race, your body needs at least one day of total rest to recover properly from the training you’ve put in. Try to go without this and it’ll only take a few weeks to understand why it’s so important. Individuals who don’t rest are more likely to suffer from over-use injuries, such as shin splints or runner’s knee. And even if you escape those niggles, you’ll begin to notice you’re not as energetic as you used to be. You might feel fatigued all day long, but struggle to sleep. You’ll constantly feel as though you’re coming down with something – in reality, you probably will come down with something. Your mood will suffer (and with it the people around you) and your love for running will wane. Collectively, these symptoms are known as over-training syndrome – common in elite athletes, and probably even more common among everyday runners like us, because we don’t have a coach or physic on hand to tell us when to rest.
However, there’s no golden rule that says your training week has to be seven days. If you’re really keen to run more and improve your times, then you could follow the example of elite runners and use an eight to ten-day training cycle, with one day off. Be very careful if you plan to do that though, and only do it if you’re still consistently seeing improvements in fitness with a weekly cycle.
TWICE A DAY?
The top of volume building in running is to train twice a day. It may sound excessive, but a lot of the very best runners in the world use this strategy. One of the daily runs will always be at a low intensity level, with the other session dedicated to building speed, strength or working on running technique. Doubling up might not happen every day of the week – a good way to start would be to do an easy run one day; double up the next day with one short, easy run and one speedwork session; go easy the next day; then double up the day after that with another short easy run and a few hill reps. Again, this isn’t for inexperienced runners. You should have built up to it over the course of a couple of years. And for many of us, there are many easier wins that will improve our running before we need to start double dosing: strength and core training, regular physic checks and targeted speedwork are all likely to be more beneficial for most of us.